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MSU holds budget town hall, announces cost-of-living increase

Matt Markgraf

Murray State University officials announced the plan to propose the biggest cost-of-living adjustment (COLA) for faculty and staff in nearly a decade during an, at times, contentious budget town hall Thursday on campus.

If approved by the university’s Board of Regents, the pay adjustment, MSU president Bob Jackson said, will be between 2.5 and 3%, and he is advocating for a flat 3% increase for all university employees. That represents the biggest pay bump since Fiscal Year 2014 for Murray State faculty and staff, an overall payroll increase of around $2.4 million.

Any increase in benefits’ costs will be absorbed by the university to hold its employees harmless. Jackson says this will cost MSU roughly $600,000. This is the third fiscal year in a row where the university will be taking that tack with its pay adjustment.

“Our goal [was] to make sure we had, if possible, the largest increase [in pay] in the last 10 years. We’re trying to do everything we can in that regard. We wanted to make sure in regard to benefits, because benefit costs are increasing, not to put a COLA in place and then pass along the additional cost of health insurance or other benefits to take back part of [it].”

In addition to presentations from Jackson, executive director of government and institutional relations Jordan Smith, director of facilities management Jason Youngblood, finance and administrative services vice president Jackie Dudley and provost and vice president of academic affairs Tim Todd gave budgetary talks. These occupied the bulk of the two-hour town hall, with about a half hour allotted for questions.

Dudley detailed the budgetary process and highlighted some of the broad strokes of Fiscal Year 2023, including an anticipated 1.95% tuition increase for both graduate and undergraduate students at the university.

Multiple staff and faculty members expressed dissatisfaction with the COLA, saying it hasn’t kept up with the rate of inflation for several years. One faculty member pointed out that an employee making $50,000 in 2017 has seen an increase of a little over $2,790 versus a price increase of a little more than $7,100, which they calculated – adjusting for the price of insurance – was close to a 14% pay cut over the five-year period.

Faculty regent and associate professor of journalism and mass communication Melony Shemberger said she understood both why employees would be upset with the COLA and why the university struggles to keep up with the inflation rate.

“If we’re not going to keep COLA now on par with about a seven to eight percent inflation, then what are we gonna do here on out to make sure it’s a considerable part when they are working on the budget,” Shemberger said. “That always has to be at the forefront. [It should never be] ‘we give a COLA if possible,’ it should always be ‘what does inflation show and how do we respond to that in adjustment.’”

Staff regent Jessica Evans thought the format of the event was misleading, saying it resembled more of “a presentation of a summary of things that had been presented earlier” in the week to the budget advisory committee and “in a true town hall … there would have been an opportunity for more questions.” She, too, advocated for an increase in the COLA.

“I understand there’s budgetary constraints but we’re also seeing record inflation,” Evans said. “I don’t know that there’s an opportunity to fully discuss that in the board meeting coming up but I do hope that there will be more of an opportunity to increase the COLA over the coming weeks.”

Evans also noted her “genuine surprise” that the asset preservation fee put in place in 2019 has not been able to cover the facilities needs on campus adequately. Smith, in his summary of the Kentucky’s General Assembly session and its impact on MSU’s finances, said that $47.2 million in asset preservation funds have been appropriated by the state legislature, with a conditional 15% private funding match. The funds will be used for facilities maintenance and enhancements, which Youngblood detailed in his presentation during the town hall.

An additional $45.5 million appropriation from the state government will be going towards the construction of a new Nursing and Health Professions building on campus.

Shemberger said it’s just as important to focus on the staff as it is on the state of the campus.

“To me it’s always about human asset preservation. We heard a lot about our facilities … yes, that is important, otherwise we don’t have a campus … but the human piece always has to be at the center of every budget,” she said. “ Not just at the time when we’re trying to decide health plans or anything like that: what is the economy showing and how do we take care of our employees.”

Jackson also spoke about some of the guiding principles of the year’s budgeting process, namely advancing academic quality, focusing on access/accessibility, investing in people (COLA and benefits), student recruiting, increasing student mental health services, continuing to flatten the school’s tuition model, simplifying the graduate studies tuition model and addressing technology infrastructure on campus.

Jackson and Smith both spoke about one of the looming budgetary issues for MSU, and many other Kentucky public universities: pension costs. The state legislature didn’t reduce the university’s pension appropriation of $3.2 million, but it’s still left with what will be a recurring $981,000 shortfall.

Murray State’s final budget for Fiscal Year 2023 will be voted on at June’s board of regents meeting.

The budget town hall can be viewed in its entirety below:

A native of western Kentucky, Operle earned his bachelor's degree in integrated strategic communications from the University of Kentucky in 2014. Operle spent five years working for Paxton Media/The Paducah Sun as a reporter and editor. In addition to his work in the news industry, Operle is a passionate movie lover and concertgoer.
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